Meiling Chang stared in horror at the dead bodies in the open grave, dumped as if they were so much garbage. Five women. One was her cousin, her last relative on earth. She’d been too late tracking her. By how long? By the look of her, Libby had endured far too much before her life had been ended.
Meiling crouched at the edge of the mass grave, ignoring the black swarms of flies, beetles and maggots that fed in abundance on the bodies. Ants teemed over them. Overhead, large birds circled, some already sat in the trees, beady eyes staring at the bodies, all too ready to pick them clean. The jungle was prepared to take care of business.
She wanted to scream in outrage until her vocal cords were shredded. Inside, where no one would ever hear or know, that was exactly what she did. She remained silent and small, huddled there in the shadows where it would take extraordinary vision for anyone to see her.
Her fists clenched helplessly on her thighs. She didn’t move them, even when she wanted to pound them. Feel pain. Make it real. Drive the pain deep and brand it forever in her bones the way it was in her heart and soul. She didn’t dare move. She was surrounded by the enemy. There were thirty of them and one of her.
She was so silly. Stupid. Just say it. She was a misfit. She didn’t belong. Not anywhere. She had heard it from birth, and this proved it. She should be in that grave, not Libby, not her beautiful cousin. Libby was a golden swan. Tall and elegant. She moved like a summer breeze. Her hair was a golden waterfall of sleek silk. She could talk to anyone and charm them instantly. How could her life end by being thrown into a pit in the middle of the jungle? It made no sense. None of this made any sense. Why hadn’t Libby listened to her just one time?
Grief stabbed at her. Along with it came the deep-down need for vengeance. She burned with terrible emotion. No matter how hard she tried to push it away, the ice picks stabbing at her with grief, tore at her demanding retaliation. She had one pistol. She wasn’t certain the damn thing actually worked. Thirty against one. She didn’t even have thirty bullets.
She couldn’t just go away and leave the other women in those dirty little huts she’d discovered, not now that she knew what when on. But what could she do? She waited, trying not to breathe in the smell of rotting flesh and decay until the men patrolling around the third hut went away. When they did, she eased back into the foliage. Giant green leaves resembling elephant ears covered her body. She crawled through the thick stems, wincing as the prickly stalks stuck her skin.
The huts were a good distance from one another. The youngest girls were kept in filthy conditions in a makeshift nearly see-through hovel that appeared to have been hastily thrown up at the last minute to shelter them. It was mostly made up of left-over boards from the other two cabins built for the young women. One held four women. They appeared to be in their early twenties. The second cabin, the one Libby had most likely occupied, held five women or girls in it. All were chained to beds and appeared to be drugged. They were anywhere from twenty to sixteen.
The huts were each about a mile apart most likely so the women knew nothing about the others. They were always kept isolated, drugged and chained. There was no hope of escape from their dreadful situation. Most of them accepted their fate. A few, like Libby, fought it and eventually died or were killed by the men who had taken them. They were a ragged lot, and no one knew where they were. The moment someone came looking, either they were moved, or they were killed and buried in a mass grave no one would find. Either way, those making their money off them would never be caught or punished.
Meiling had seen it happen so many times. In her land, in her neighboring land, the power had always shifted to the corrupt males, those willing to commit violence in order to get their way. She moved to a vantage point above the first hut where the twenty-year old women were kept. If she could somehow manage to free them first and enlist their aid, she might have a chance to free the youngest ones in the third hut before tackling the teens.
She wiped the beads of sweat from her face. The sweat was trickling down her throat into the valley between her breasts which was quite a feat since she was extremely slender. She wanted to laugh but she knew that was hysteria and she refused to give into it. The heat, the insects and losing Libby had created a kind of surreal effect she was trying to stave off.
It took her a good half hour to work up the courage to move down the slope and get close enough to the small cabin to be able to count how many of the enemy she would have to contend with. Eight. Eight men coming in and out, laughing and talking in low voices. One was angry, zipping up his trousers and complaining to another who seemed to be in charge. That man strode into the cabin with an attitude of resignation.
The walls were thin with large cracks in them. There was a small porch. The men smoked. Two drank and passed flasks to the others. Two others she hadn’t seen before came out of the jungle with dogs and stood for a few minutes smoking with the others.
Meiling was grateful for the large plants that grew right up to the hut. Her small body was easy to conceal in the foliage. Fortunately, with the men smoking and the wind blowing in the opposite direction, the dogs didn’t catch her scent. She had sprayed her body with a special chemical that was supposed to keep her own scent from leaking out, but she didn’t know how effective it really was.
Suddenly the sound of voices could be heard coming from the cabin. A man sounding angry. “What do I have to do, babe? He was upset, wanted his money back and I had to give him a fucking refund. You give the best damn blowjobs in the world, and I have to give the man his money back?”
“But Vahn, this wasn’t supposed to be real. We were playing out a fantasy, between the two of us.” The woman’s voice was low, and she sounded on the verge of tears.
“You love it, Bess, admit it. It’s your fantasy come true. You love having men beg you for it. You’re the best and you know it. You have them eating out of your hand. I did everything you wanted. I brought your friends here. They aren’t so high and mighty and they sure as hell aren’t anywhere as good at this as you are.”
There was a short silence. It sounded as though he was kissing her. “They aren’t very nice to me.”
“Who isn’t nice to you, babe? I’ll beat the holy hell out of her.”
“I don’t want you to do that. Then she can’t work and the rest of us has to work more.”
“That’s true. How ‘bout this. You tell me who’s being mean to you and when I spot a customer who is going to be an asshole, I’ll give him to her. He can treat her like shit, and she’ll deserve it for the way she treats you.”
“Patti,” Bess said instantly. “Patti is always mean.”
There was a murmur of protest among the women, but they stopped abruptly when Vahn spoke.
“I can arrange for several nasty customers.”
Someone, Meiling presumed it was Patti, began to weep softly.
“Okay, babe, the next time I send you a customer, you treat him good, you hear me? I owe money and you’re paying that debt off for me, just like we talked about. That was the fantasy and that was what we agreed on.”
“Yes, Vahn. I will. I’m sorry. I just need you to come in and see me once in a while so I remember why I’m here. Tell me you love me.”
“I do, Bess. You know I love you.”
There was another long silence.
More kissing, Meiling supposed. That was perfect manipulation on Vahn’s part. Bess was so certain he loved her, and they would live happily ever after. There wouldn’t be a happy ever after. Vahn would kill her or sell her after he was finished with her. He most likely had another woman or teen in the other cabin as well.
Having a conspirator in the cabin made things even more difficult. That meant Bess would warn Vahn and even fight for him if she managed to sneak into the hut to free the women from the chains. If he had someone in the second cabin, that girl would do the same. Meiling’s head was beginning to pound.
The sound of an engine approaching broke up the little party of men on the porch. The guards patrolling with the dogs hurried back into the jungle to make their rounds. The men congregating together looked at one another and immediately gathered tools and tried to appear busy. A jeep came up the narrow dirt trail fast and abruptly halted just before ramming into the building. A man wearing light colored jungle gear leapt out from behind the wheel. He was approaching forty, his dark hair receding slightly, but he wore it cut close to his head.
“Come on, Gedeon, hurry. I gotta show this to you. Make you understand. What I owe the Orlov family is nothing. This makes more money in a single hour than what I owe them in a month. I can pay them back. I’ve got the money sitting in the jeep.” He indicated the package on the seat.
The other man took the wrapped package and hefted it twice. “It’s all here, Frankie? Because if I have to come back, it won’t be to talk.”
A shiver slid down Meiling’s back. It wasn’t as if the stranger had raised his voice, he didn’t. That quiet voice was a part of him. Natural. But he was the most dangerous man there. Meiling was certain of it, just by hearing his voice. He didn’t tower over Frankie, although he was taller by an inch or so. His shoulders were wider. His chest thicker. He wore a suit as if it had been made for him and wouldn’t dare wrinkle even in the worst of conditions. She couldn’t see his face, but he had thick dark hair that was the only thing unruly about him.
“It’s all there, Gedeon. But you don’t want to take the money back to Victor Orlov. Let me show you the operation. I never told anyone you were coming. No one knows you’re here. This could get me killed just showing you this, but I’m willing to give you part of my shares for all the times you saved my ass. I mean it.”
Frankie’s voice rang with sincerity and Meiling had to believe him. She noticed Gedeon shoved the package into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“When you owe Victor Ortov money, Frankie, you have to pay him back or someone like me shows up on your doorstep to collect it. This is the third time. He isn’t a patient man. I stuck my neck on the chopping block for you. Can’t do it again.”
“I know you did. I know you did. That’s why I’m letting you in on this money maker. Ground floor, I swear. You take this back to him. Tell him he can come in but he brings us the product.” Frankie sounded eager.
Meiling glimpsed his face. Her heart stuttered in her chest. Gedeon looked bored, but more than that, with the angles and planes of his face, the dark shadows on his jaw, he looked invincible. He walked with a fluid grace, flowing over the ground with an easy stride that made him appear to be part of nature. Her heart began to pound, and she had to concentrate on her breathing to get it under control. Did Frank have any idea what he was dealing with?
The other men moved out of his way, showing him respect, but she doubted if they really understood they’d brought a killing machine into their midst. She knew what he was. She didn’t have to see him up close. She didn’t have to look into his eyes to see what he was. She recognized him just by the way he moved. She didn’t know what he was, what kind of title he held, but she didn’t want to know. He was too dangerous to contend with. She wasn’t going to get herself killed or captured.
Meiling went motionless, locking her body in a frozen stillness that made it nearly impossible for anyone to spot her. Only her eyes moved, taking in everything around her. She heard Frankie explaining to Gedeon the business, how they kidnaped women from the clubs and brought them here to the jungle where they were trained to serve men. They were rented out while they were in training, making good money and when they were sold at auction, they made huge amounts of money. The supplies were endless. They could get women or teens easily from anywhere all over the country. The money was better than drugs or arms.
“Look at them,” Gedeon said softly. “These are human beings. Look at the way you’re treating them. They have bruises all over them. They’re chained to the beds. We don’t have slaves anymore, for God’s sake.”
Frankie shrugged. “Why not? We can have anything we want out here. No one knows. No one cares. We can do whatever we want to them. They can be replaced like that.” He snapped his fingers.
Two of his men came in, pushing past Gedeon, each going to one of the women and ruthlessly catching her by the hair to drag her into a semi-sitting position. Both began to make demands and pepper the woman with slaps and a fist in various places on her body before she could accommodate them. Two more men entered the hut and eagerly claimed two other hapless women.
“I brought you at training time. We have two other cabins. The same thing is going on in those cabins right now. We’re very organized. We train the sluts exactly the same. When they’re ready, we sell them and bring the next ones in. We try to make that turnover as fast as possible, and the money is unbelievable.”
Meiling could hear the curt dismissal in Frankie’s voice. She also heard the soft warning growl that sent a shiver of terror down her spine. Had anyone else heard it? It was so low. So deceptively quiet.
“You have three cabins here in the jungle already set up and running?” Gedeon reiterated.
“That’s right,” Frankie said. It was clear he believed Gedeon was on board.
“All of them have the same number of men keeping these women under control?”
“And no one knows anything about this operation other than the men here now and your father?”
“He doesn’t know,” Frankie said, contempt in his voice. “He wanted Ortov paid off immediately. He would live with that asshole’s shoe on his neck for the rest of his life. I tried to tell him we could get out from under him, but there was no listening to my idea. So, the hell with him. I’m getting us out. The only one who knows is my brother. He’d kill me if he knew you were here. He thinks you’re flying in tomorrow morning. I told him you’d be coming in then and I arranged for your arrival. I told him I’d give you the money then and you’d pay Ortov off and the debt would be cleared.”
“Those men you have patrolling, you didn’t by any chance give them orders to shoot me if I didn’t take this offer did you, Frankie?” There was an edge of humor in Gedeon’s voice, inviting Frankie to laugh with him.
Frankie took the bait, laughing heartily. Nervously. “You know I wouldn’t do that.”
Meiling heard the lie in his voice. What else could he do? He’d shown Gedeon a secret operation even his father didn’t know about.
Frankie was eager to offer Gedeon a share in his new business venture for all the favors Gedeon had done him in the past. A woman cried out in pain and that must have been the catalyst for Gedeon to act. Meiling heard Frankie shriek. Plead. Women screamed. One of them yelled at Bess not to shoot. A gun went off. Meiling saw the two guards running toward the cabin. The dogs fought the leashes, desperate to get away. Swearing, the guards released them in order to retain possession of their guns. The dogs ran off into the jungle.
There was a sudden silence in the cabin as Gedeon, his elegant suit streaked in blood, somersaulted out the window closest to Meiling. He landed in the brush and went absolutely still, his gaze focused on the two men rushing up the stairs and into the cabin.
“Who did this?” One of the men shouted.
Two of the women answered that it was a stranger, they didn’t know and the guards opened fire, their guns spouting bullets. Meiling had to cover her mouth to keep from crying out. She should have known the guards had been instructed to murder the women if there was any kind of trouble. Frankie had all but told Gedeon they were expendable. That meant, the teens—and younger children in the huts were as well. The men “training them” had to have heard those shots.
Meiling realized it was going to be a massacre. Gedeon realized it as well. With one incredible leap he was on the porch in the doorway, his gun blazing and then he was running for the forest, his speed a blur. She saw him shed his jacket on the run. She was fast, but there was no way she could possibly keep up with him. She did stop to pick up his jacket, folding it over her arm as she sped after him, leaping over fallen tree trunks and avoiding tall termite hills.
She spotted his shirt in a tangle of brush off the trail. He was cutting through the jungle, well off the trail. She followed, using as much speed as possible. She was used to sprints, not steady long runs. She found his trousers on low branch and beneath it his loafers.
She knew leopards. Shifters. They were all bad. Not just bad. She had thought they were the worst kind of evil on the planet, until she had begun tracking Frankie and his brother Miguel. The brothers weren’t shifters and knew nothing of them. They came from a family of criminals, making their money running drugs, but spending it like water when all around them were incredibly poor people. They cared nothing for those living in abject poverty. They seemed to care for nothing but themselves.
The moment she saw Gedeon she knew he was leopard. There was no mistaking once you’d seen one. She’d never seen one quite so fast in human form. She couldn’t imagine what he would be like in leopard form. She was shocked that he’d cared enough about the women to try to save them. One man, even a shifter, against so many, didn’t seem good odds.
As a rule, when seen or caught in the wild, the Amur male leopard weighed between 71 and 110 pounds and the female weighed between 55 and 94. Meiling had seen shifters with leopards weighing far more than that. It didn’t seem to slow their leopards down at all. Gedeon was built in the way of shifters with roped muscles, a dense chest, narrow hips leading to muscled thighs. He was astonishingly fast. Meiling was certain he couldn’t be an Amur leopard, not when he had empathy for the women being treated in such appalling ways.
She kept running but by the time she reached the second cabin she found only death. The leopard had come too late to save the teens from the guards. They had been murdered the moment their trainers heard gunfire and couldn’t raise anyone on their phones to instruct them otherwise. Despite having the advantage of knowing someone or something was coming for them, despite having the advantage of numbers, the leopard had torn them to shreds. All of them. Then he was gone, rushing for the next cabin, leaving no one behind to sneak up on him while he was doing his best to save the children.
Meiling stopped in the heavy brush some thirty feet away from the third cabin. One of the patrolling guards lay dying another ten feet from her. The leopard hadn’t delivered the kill bite to him in his effort to get to the children. Now, Gedeon knelt on the porch, one hand covering his face, weeping. Bodies of the men the leopard had killed were scattered around him in various stages of dying.
Meiling knew the children had been murdered, just as the women and teens had been. Gedeon had found them already dead. She found her eyes blurring as well. She had hoped. Prayed to the universe she no longer believed in. What was wrong with these men that they could kill so easily? She brushed at the wetness in her eyes and when she did, she caught movement.
The guard. The one Gedeon’s leopard hadn’t finished off. He was dying. There was no way for him to live, not with the vicious wounds that had ripped open his body. She could see those gashes had been inflicted on the run. The leopard had ensured the guard couldn’t walk or come after him. He’d struck brutally and continued onward. But the guard was up to something. He was attempting to pull something off his belt with his very shaky hands.
Meiling had to really study what it was he was trying to get to. She didn’t know much about bombs at all, but she had read about them once and looked at diagrams. There was a description of remote detonators and that looked suspiciously like one.
Not thinking, clutching Gedeon’s clothes, she raised her voice as she turned to run. She had no idea where the bomb was, or even if there was one. “Bomb. Run. Get out of there. Run.”
It stood to reason, along with murdering the women and children, they’d blow up the evidence. Maybe the bomb was a string of bombs that ran along the path of the cabins. Meiling ran away from the path. She caught a glimpse of Gedeon’s head coming up sharply as she looked back to see if he was heeding her warning.
For one terrible moment their eyes met. His burned a terrible gold as he shifted on the run. On the run. Coming straight toward her. He was huge. The biggest leopard she’d ever seen in her life. His fur was thick, almost creamy white on his belly and legs with deep gold over the cream on his back and head. Black rosettes were large and widely spaced over his entire body and those eyes burned brightly and focused as he ran.
She didn’t look back but ran for her life. She knew he was coming for her. He couldn’t leave witnesses. He was Amur. Deadly. Bratva. They murdered their women. The world thought they were nearly extinct from loss of habitat or poaching but she knew the shifters had murdered their own kind. Now that they were down to so few, were they horrified at what they’d done? Were they looking for their women in an effort to rectify the situation? No, they were still murdering them.
She ran as fast as she was capable of running, leaping over every obstacle in her path. She was grateful for the fifty-foot start, but she knew it wasn’t nearly enough. Then the world blew up. She was picked up as if she weighed no more than a feather and thrown through the air into the relative protection of the heavier brush. She landed right in the middle of thick leaves cushioning her fall. She lay covering her eyes against the flash after flash and thundering blast that shook the earth.
She’d been right about the string of bombs that ran beneath the ground connecting the cabins. Frankie and his crew had buried enough explosives to level the buildings and cover their operation so anyone coming to try to find evidence would have to sift through jungle and ash to find anything.
Meiling waited with her hands over her head, heart pounding, realizing she still clutched Gedeon’s clothes. The material helped to shield her from falling debris. She lay very still until the ground ceased trembling and the jungle was completely still. There was no sound. No insects. No birds. Nothing moved or voiced an opinion. Like her, everything was too shocked to protest.
Eventually, she realized she had to make certain Gedeon’s leopard wasn’t creeping up on her, about to leap on her and rip her to shreds any moment. She forced herself to lift her head cautiously. When nothing happened, she shook off the leaves and small branches and sat up, taking stock of her body to make sure nothing was broken. She probably had a few bruises, but she’d been lucky. All the charges had been behind her.
Her body shook as if she had tremors that were uncontrollable. There was no fixing that so she just accepted it as she did anything she couldn’t change and looked around her. The cabin was gone. Flattened. No, it was a hole in the ground. The forest around it was gone, the trees lying in piles of rubble and leaves everywhere. It looked like a war zone.
She started to turn away when she caught movement under one of the stacks of leaves and branches. It was a human leg and arm moving, the arm trying to throw the branch off the leg. She heard the curse. The groan. The branch settled back over the leg. The man cursed again, and she heard the raw pain in his voice.
Gedeon. Meiling closed her eyes. Naturally he would live through it. He was a leopard and probably had more than nine lives. If she helped him, he would most certainly reward her by killing her. He was Amur. What else would he do? If she didn’t help him, she would forever remember him taking on all those horrid men to free the women. She would never get the sight of him kneeling on the porch weeping from her mind. The latter two things didn’t fit with him being Amur leopard. Now, she was the one cursing.
She made her way back to him, picking her way through the debris. “I’ve got a gun and if you make one wrong move, I’m going to shoot you right through the heart. Do you understand? If you just behave, I’ll move the branch, leave you your clothes and you can go on your way.” Meiling made certain she didn’t speak until she could do so without the slightest tremor in her voice. She was still shaking like a leaf, but he couldn’t see her—at least she hoped he couldn’t.
There was a small silence and then she heard him sigh. “Lady, get the hell out of here while you can. I’m blind. My leg is broken. The branch is too heavy for you to lift, and I can’t help you with my leg like this. I’m naked, by the way. If you did manage to get me free, I got a good look at you and I weigh three times your weight. How are you going to pack me out of here? On your back? That’s ludicrous. No doubt, there are men on their way right now to see what the hell happened to their money-making operation, and you don’t want to be here when they get here. If by some miracle you did manage to save my life and I regained my eyesight and didn’t die of infection, I’d have to hunt you down, which I’m very good at and kill you because I don’t leave witnesses. On top of everything else, my cat hates everybody and I’m pretty damned weak right now and I might not be able to hold him back. So, get out of here.”
“You really aren’t telling me anything new other than the eye thing and broken leg. If you aren’t going to be useful, less talking please. I’ve got to figure this out fast.” She put his clothes down and considered the branch. It was large, but it was mostly the angle that was going to give her trouble. If she dropped it on his leg a second time after she picked it up, it was going to cause considerably more damage.
She was strong and unfortunately, the moment she showed him just how strong she actually was, he would guess she was more than she seemed. That meant the moment she could, she would have to run. She’d planned on doing so anyhow, but that would double his incentive for coming after her.
She caught ahold of the end of the branch, lifted and maneuvered it off his leg, closing her ears to the sound of his hastily cut off groan. The branch was cracked in several places and made horrid creaking and cracking noises, threatening to break into several large pieces, the offshoots shivering, throwing twigs and leaves raining down. She didn’t hesitate at all but kept the thick branch moving until it was completely away from Gedeon’s body. When she dropped it to the ground, it did break into pieces.
For the first time, she allowed herself to look at the man’s face to see if he was telling her the truth. His gorgeous jade-green eyes were definitely damaged in some way. Hastily, she tore a strip from his shirt, soaked it in the water from her backpack and slowly approached him.
“I’m going to tie this around your eyes. It’s all I’ve got at the moment to help. Then I’ll stabilize your leg to move you.”
“Why aren’t you afraid of my leopard?”
“I have a way with them. Is he acting up?”
“As a matter of fact, no.”
Meiling did feel a little smug at that. He sounded shocked. She wasn’t that surprised. She did have a way with large cats.
“How the hell do you think you can move me?” Now he was back to irritable.
“Does it matter? I’m getting you out of here unless you’d rather I leave you the gun and you take care of doing yourself in. Otherwise, stop whining and let me get this done. I don’t want to be here with you any longer than I have to.”
“I have to hand it to you, little doll, you have guts.”
“Don’t aggravate me with your cute little nicknames right now.” She did her best not to look at his body. He might be torn up, but he was the first man she’d ever seen that looked like he did. She had no idea men were built like him.
His mouth curved, but he didn’t say anything else as she firmly tied the cool cloth around his eyes and then made her way to his leg. She wasn’t certain the leg was broken but it was a hell of a nasty, deep laceration. It took several precious minutes to find the right pieces of wood to stabilize the leg by bracing it on either side. She tied it firmly in several places, more than she thought necessary so there was no chance of a break worsening while she moved him.
“My car is about a mile from here through the jungle. I didn’t come in on the trail and I’m not going out that way, not that there is one any longer. I’m going to take you out in a firemen’s carry. It’s going to hurt and I’m sorry about that, but it’s the only way. Don’t give me your objections and or say one word about my height.”
“I’m aware. I’ve got your clothes, but we can’t dress you with your leg like that. I can put your jacket over my shoulder if that helps with your dignity.”
Meiling didn’t wait for his consent. She folded his coat over her shoulder, pressed the rest of his clothing into his hands, bent her knees, crouching low and leveraged him over her shoulder.
“Your shoes are stuffed into the pocket of your trousers. The money Frankie owed your client is in the inside pocket of your jacket where you originally put it. All your weapons are still in the places inside your jacket where you keep them. Your wallet is where you left it. Your belt is intact, and nothing has been taken. Your phone is in its case on your belt. Once we are in the car, if you have people, you want me to take you to or a hotel room, I’ll take you there.”
“That would be suicide.”
She moved through the brush much slower than she had anticipated. He was very heavy and all the while she knew every step she took was terribly painful to him. The brush tore up his exposed skin. She couldn’t cover him and move quickly. She had to get out of the jungle and away from the area before Frankie’s brother and his crew showed up to determine what happened.
By the time she reached her Jeep, Gedeon was nearly unconscious. What had he said about suicide if she took him to his hotel? That didn’t sound good. Where was she supposed to take him? She didn’t have his kind of money. She couldn’t use the money he needed to send to the Orlov family. They were Russian. Amur Leopard. Bratva. Those people came after you if you didn’t pay them. They sent men like Gedeon to kill you. The Orlov lair were embedded in Columbia. She knew them by reputation only, but she had no wish to know them by more than that. They had ties to a family in San Antonio, Texas of all places and another in New Orleans, Louisiana.
It ate up more minutes getting him onto the back seat of the Jeep and covering him adequately, strapping him in and then driving like hell over the bumpy, nearly nonexistent tiny road she’d been told about by some of the locals who despised Frankie and Miguel. The road took her to the edge of a coffee plantation that was really a plantation for opiates.
She maneuvered the outer road to get to the one farm everyone left alone because they needed the food that farm provided. She knew the residents there and visited often when she was in the area, bringing them much needed funds so she was always welcome. She didn’t stop this time but paused only long enough to hand the large manila envelope she’d brought them through her window, promising she’d be back soon. Waving, she drove toward the city using the main road now that she had done legitimate business.
Meiling imagined that Gedeon was either a resident at one of the really nice hotels or had his own residence in the good part of the city. She didn’t. She needed to make certain her money always stretched. She didn’t care that much where she stayed because it was never for long. She always had her “go” bag prepared. She could disappear in minutes. If necessary, she could even walk out without anything, go to the nearest bus station, or airport, even the train station and she would have a “go” bag there.
Meiling didn’t take chances anymore. “You, sir, are a huge liability to me,” she hissed as she opened the passenger door to her Jeep. He was lucky there was even a door on her Jeep. “And you’re lucky it’s dark.” Not that anyone would look twice in the part of the city they were in. Not seeing a naked man hobbling into her little apartment. This was the part of the city where every kind of sex was paid for and most of the tiny hovels were used for just those purposes. What raised eyebrows was not having someone looking out for her. “Now, I’m going to have to go back to the old ways to get the money for your doc. Everyone’s going to think you’re my pimp. At least they’ll be happy.”
Gedeon was delirious, his fever raging. That wasn’t good in a leopard. She knew that much. He needed a doctor. That was going to take all her funds for certain.
She managed to get him on the bed. It was a big bed. It took up most of the apartment. The bed and the kitchen. She had laughed at that. She thought maybe after entertaining the client in the huge bed the custom was to feed them before sending them off.
Meiling called the farmhouse, the only people she trusted, to ask about a very discreet doctor who wouldn’t go to the authorities or anyone else. They promised to send someone but told her he wouldn’t be cheap. She sighed and glared at Gedeon. She needed to get his clothes out of sight, especially the money, and try to make certain he didn’t say anything while the doctor was there. She had to convince the doctor Gedeon and she were a couple.
She gave him a cooling sponge bath after she removed the makeshift splint. He couldn’t have any evidence of the jungle on him. She removed the strip of shirt from his eyes so the doctor wouldn’t see the material. If she thought she had time, she would have bought him some courser shirts and trousers just to have in the room.
“Listen to me, Gedeon. It’s imperative you don’t talk when the doctor’s here. He can’t know you were in the jungle. I’m going to tell him your name is Jeff and you’re my man. We were with friends we can’t name. Political friends and there was an accident. That’s all we can say. He’ll think we are with a radical group trying to overthrow the government. There’s always unrest especially with so much criminal activity on the border between Columbia and Venezuela. Do you understand? You can’t talk to him.”
Gedeon nodded. “I’m Jeff. Got it. Where are my clothes?”
“In the wall right behind you. One gun is to your left the other your right. You should be able to punch through the panel easily and pull them out if necessary. Point and shoot. Safety is off.”
“You’re not afraid I’ll shoot you?”
“You need me.”
“I guess I do.”
She wiped the sweat from his face with the cool cloth.
“Is he going to tell me if I’m going to be able to see?”
“I hope he can. I asked my friend to send us someone who could.”